What You Don’t Know You Can Feel Somehow

[Ed. Yeah, I know I promised this last week, but I obviously didn’t get around to it then. This is the first of what will hopefully be a weekly non-church/religious Wednesday post, probably usually having something to do with sports.]

I typically go to about one Michigan game a year. It started when my family moved to Ohio in 2003 and my grandfather made it a point to make some grandpa-grandson memories at the Big House. I had sort of liked Michigan before that (I knew the Victors and all), but after watching the third-ranked team romp a decent Notre Dame team 38-0 for my first game, I was hooked. I’ve seen my fair share of crushing defeats in person. 2005 Notre Dame (17-10), 2005 Ohio State (25-21), and of course 2007 Appalachian State are notables. The elating victories (2009 Notre Dame) are harder to come by, partially I think because winning against any team not Ohio State is followed by shrugs. This is MICHIGAN. We’re supposed to be great.

My friend and I used to play a lot of NCAA Football video games in high school. We’d pick teams with awesome offenses and usually play epic 52-49 games that turned on an ill-timed interception or turnover on downs. Scoring a touchdown was like holding serve; if you got behind by two possessions, it was over.

This is Denard. A video game player, in a video game.

At halftime of the Michigan-Illinois game last Saturday it was 31-31 and the scoring was barely half-over. It was like some ludicrous real-life simulation of a video game between two excellent NCAA ’07 gamers. I was there with my Illinois-fan roommate and my sister plus sister-boyfriend guy. 50-yard line, 88th row, which is really the perfect spot. I alternated between silent, helpless frustration at the ineptitude of the defense and relieved, rapturous disbelief at the explosive efficiency of the offense. Illinois gained 561 yards of offense and still lost because Michigan had 676. The absurdity of it was short-circuiting my ability to process.

1,237 yards and three overtimes after kickoff, Michigan finally won after a failed Illinois 2-point conversion, 67-65. It was a stupid score. I was simultaneously numb and exhilarated, like you might feel after taking caffeine intravenously for about four hours. Part of me wanted to jump up and down and hug everybody around me, but mostly I just wanted to sit and watch. Something had just happened that was just too difficult to make sense of; it was too hard to pretend that this was anything other than a ridiculous dream conjured out of the dreams that you get in a tripping Xbox 360-induced coma after lots of Mountain Dew.

After it was over, I stood there smiling stupidly in my numb ecstasy while the team celebrated. Rodriguez hugged his 12-year-old son. David Molk lifted his helmet into the air as he jogged off the field, like some gladiator (which, if you’ve ever seen his press conferences, he kind of is). Tate Forcier jumped up and down as he ran into the tunnel, waving his arms frantically like it was September 2009.

But despite it all, one fan nearby muttered, “I’ve never seen people so excited about beating Illinois.” He was transparently one of them.

Lots of fans deal with severe disappointment by disconnecting from the losing team: that’s not Michigan, they say. Michigan plays defense/doesn’t make turnovers/beats Illinois easily/doesn’t celebrate bowl berths/doesn’t throw for 400 yards/doesn’t play with black, dreadlocked quarterbacks. And I’m sick of this. At best, it’s ignorant and elitist; at worst, it’s racist.

An offensive lineman recruited by Lloyd Carr transferred after Rich Rodriguez was hired, and like many before him, he spat a loogie the coaches’ direction on his way out: “The guys they’re bringing in now aren’t my type of crowd.” Why? Because they’re black? They wear dreadlocks? They work out and practice without being asked? They fit in a spread offense?

There are a million-and-one reasons I want Rich Rodriguez to succeed at Michigan. Part of it is because I just like Michigan and want them to win, but only part. The rest of me wants to see all the lousy fans proven wrong, the insidious saboteurs weeded out, and Rodriguez, his offense and WALK-ON POWER program philosophy, vindicated.

But more than anything, I want selfish, nostalgic fans to stop pretending that Michigan is something it’s not. Michigan isn’t an elite program; it hasn’t been one since 2004. Lloyd Carr allowed the program to deteriorate, then passed the ugly baby over to a hot shot young coach from West Virginia who didn’t realize that Michigan wasn’t really MICHIGAN at all.

This was a team that in Carr’s last year lost to FCS Appalachian State and got nuked by Oregon at home, only to win several straight against overmatched Big Ten teams before getting rolled by Wisconsin and gaining 99 yards of offense against Ohio State. It was a mediocre program, dressed up in nice clothes and makeup until all the NFL-caliber skill position players left and Rodriguez was given nothing but a 6′ 7″ quarterback and a MAC secondary.

Three years later, just as Rodriguez is starting to build his program with his players, half the fan base still wants to act like it’s 1997 and shrugs at beating Illinois because that’s what MICHIGAN is supposed to do.

Fine. Perhaps you don’t care, because you’re holding onto something that no longer exists. You watch what could be a program-changing win, one of the greatest games of your lifetime, and can only manage to say, they’re acting like they just won the Super Bowl. Whatever. You don’t have to care. But “your” team does.

Your team does.

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